The Opinionated, Badass Founder of a Revolutionary Beauty Brand
Decoding The Cosmetic Cop - Paula Begoun
66-year-old Paula Begoun began her entrepreneurial journey at the age of 28. Remembering how she thought about starting on her own she laughs, “I kept getting fired from other jobs. I am loud, I am brash and I yell. You don’t keep jobs when you are yelling at people. That’s how I became an entrepreneur because I wanted to do what I loved to do and I wanted to wake up in the morning and still have a job.” 35 years ago, Paula Begoun shook up the beauty world with radically honest, straightforward talk about which skin care products would help women — and which wouldn’t.
When Begoun started it was an era of no internet. She wrote her first book about skincare, which was a hit among consumers. And once the internet came she started putting the information on her website. From being a critique of the industry to coming out with her own products has been a transition. “I talked to my family as I was formulating my products a lot of readers and friends said this - I know this transition is hard but you always say that this product is bad, this product is good, don’t use jar etc. why don’t you make products which we should use.” That led to the foundation of Paula’s Choice. She was a visionary of selling through online channel as she made it a direct to consumer brand.
As her brand saw the slow and steady rise, I ask her if she ever aspired to become an Estee Lauder. Her answer is a straightforward no. Sharing the step by step rise of her business, Begoun says, “I knew the number one reason most companies are down is debt. To be able to pay debt you over borrow hoping to make some money to pay tax and eventually the banks/lenders come knocking and you are closed. Because I wanted to do what I loved doing I just wanted to do things step by step so I never took a loan.
I took US$ 1200 in 1984. And everything I did on profit. My books took off right away.” Begoun has been bold with her critique of the beauty industry but not much with the business. She admits, “I wasn’t so big, it took me longer to grow than other companies but I am not a big risk taker. I wasn’t willing to go out of business because of debt. I know there are a lot of things to manage business but certainly on top of it is managing debt.” For a long time she didn’t look at outside capital. Eight years ago she sold her company to a private equity firm. When asked about her decision to sell to a PE after a small investment from a VC, she says, “My Company had grown beyond my capacity to run it. I am a formulator, I am a researcher. I am not a bad businesswoman but I wouldn’t hire a CEO for a company of my size.” As per her, the reason to sell really was she would have kept it small; selling it to a PE helped her to grow it into a company it is and will eventually become. Even after selling it Begoun still remains involved in major decisions. She says, “I didn’t want to delay with legal contracts, hiring, firing, etc. I am not doing that anymore after decades of doing that. Now I am just doing what I love.” Paula’s Choice is currently present in 40 countries around the world including India.
The transition of being in control of 100% where she had no partners and having a minority stake has been challenging. “Not having control when I had control in my whole career is very tricky,” says Begoun. She laughs saying she doesn’t even attend board meetings as she finds them boring. “Business part of it always bored me. I did it because I had to do it. I was able to do a lot of what I loved and not so much of what I didn’t like. I am not the best entrepreneur,” admits Begoun.
The much admired quality of Begoun of being brutally honest whether about products while writing reviews or about her own capabilities while running a business helped her to take the decision to give up control when she needed a corporate culture to grow it as a company. Even now most of her time is spent researching. Her time goes in going through published literature either about cosmetic science, skin biology, ingredients, formulations, and their interaction with skin. Her eyes light up whenever someone asks about any skin product as she still loves busting myths. When asked about the start of her career as what we know today as beauty influencers she says, “Nobody paid me for my opinion. It’s a different world today.” Another myth busted by her.
1979: Started writing on cosmetics industry
1985: Wrote her first book, Blue Eyeshadow Should Be Illegal
1992: Wrote Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me
1995: Founded global skincare line Paula’s Choice
2008: Inception of Beautypedia
2012: Bertram Capital invested in the company
2016: TA Associates invested in Paula’s Choice
2019: Launched in India
2020: Paula’s Choice completes 25 years
(This article was first published in the August 2020 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)